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Throughout history, many people have considered faith and religion as a pillar in their everyday lives. For generations, the West has championed Christianity as their way of navigating challenges within their own families– even to the extent of implementing Christian principles in legislation and governance.
My family was no different. Faith has, and continues to play, an integral role in the lives of my parents. They required me to attend Sunday School while they attended weekly services at a church in the Inner West of Sydney. During my adolescence, I was always encouraged to join Friday night youth groups, as a way of interacting with other young people of the Christian faith. At the time, I saw this as a natural transition into the teenage years as my older siblings went through a similar experience. Not knowing anything else, this environment was the place I called ‘home’ for a large proportion of my teenage years.
However, I would be misleading you if I were to declare that this experience was smooth-sailing. Now, as a young woman, multiple aspects of being raised in the Church created significant issues in my journey to find self-identity.
I vividly remember being 12 years old at a church-organised youth summer camp. It encompassed over 100 high school students, as part of a youth group, participating in bible studies, sermons and team-building activities. In the midst of the sweltering heat, we had a water course in the pool of the campsite. The girls were asked to bring a shirt to wear over their swimmers while in the water; all in the name of “making sure your Brothers in Christ will not be tempted”.
At the time, I wilfully complied with the requests of the camp organisers. However, more significantly, the boys were not asked to wear a shirt in the water like the girls and were not held to the same standard. What message was this sending to young women?
Was it that girls, as young as 12, were responsible for mitigating the lustful desires of teenage boys?
To make matters worse, one of the female youth leaders declared that she was “disappointed with the clothing choices of many of the girls” on the camp. She used a similar justification; even referencing biblical verses in a bid to change our behaviour.
At this age, my mother was purchasing my clothes from Target, and not even considering that teenage boys would be “tempted” by innocent clothing choices. Was it now also her responsibility to account for the possibility that teenage boys would be viewing girls in that way?
If anything, if these boys were on the trajectory to viewing girls as sexual objects, on a church-organised camp, they should have also been held responsible for controlling their own desires.
I could recount an endless number of stories with a similar nature, but they all have one thing in common; that the Church was, perhaps inadvertently, ingraining the idea that females are largely responsible for the overtly lustful desires of men.
As I grew older, I began to realise that this proposition was deeply flawed. It angers me this onus was placed on girls, as young as 12 years old. This mindset only un-did itself through my time at school, where I learnt that lessening men’s desires was not the responsibility of a woman. Having said that, I think the Church wholeheartedly attempts to empower women, through staple biblical truths, such as Proverbs 31; a key verse being: “Charm is deceptive and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.” Despite this, they may not have seen that placing this obligation on young women was not conducive to empowering them.
Church was a place for belonging, community and as many churches would say, “doing life together”. Spending a significant portion of my time with a tightly-knit group of people brought its own challenges. Each Sunday, people from all walks of life would congregate to explore what it meant to be a Christian. Everyone was encouraged to serve in whatever capacity they could. By the time I was 13, I was on the church worship team. Every month or so, I would devote my Sunday mornings to be part of leading the congregation in song and praise. It was through this that I lost sight of my sense of self-identity. Specifically, it led to a deep sense of inadequacy in myself and my abilities.
I felt that there was always someone who was far more appreciated and adored by senior members of the church. There was always someone who could declare more “powerful” prayers or was generally more charismatic than me. As a teenager, this was a problematic mindset, to the unfortunate extent that it induced significant insecurities within me.
While this is not unique to churches themselves, it was a place that I was supposed to be wholeheartedly appreciated and accepted for who I was. However, I was always comparing myself to other girls who, that I perceived, were more “loved” by church elders and leaders.
I poignantly recall many occasions in which I would be with a friend, and many people would approach her and reveal how much they loved she way she sang and prayed, usually proceeding to speak some encouragement while they ignored my presence in the conversation.
It was instances, such as these, that eventually brought many insecurities to the surface. Over time, I found that I was trying to be like this friend; dressing like her, adopting her mannerisms and being with her, in an attempt to gain the charisma and adoration that she had. Eventually, that friendship faded away because she did not appreciate me imitating her, and this loss hurt me very deeply.
Was I ever going to be good enough? Was I ever going to be adored by people in a similar way?
It was only through gaining perspective and spending time away from that environment, I was able to find my sense of self and what I truly believed and stood for. My experiences in high school greatly shaped my morals and values, while University and College helped me navigate many of the challenges that have been important for my self-development. I look back at that situation from when I was 13 and now, I see that behaviour in her, and eventually me, as grossly lacking in authenticity.
I hope that for the sake of young men and women, that churches have changed their practices so that they empower the youth. I hope that they would simply facilitate a supportive environment to explore faith, instead of attempting to change their behaviour. As time goes on, I have strong hope that the culture of the Church can change accordingly, so that young people would not have to endure a similar fate as I did.
If I could say anything to 13 year old Christal Au-Yeung, I would tell her this:
“Be true to yourself and worry less about what other people think of you. Be more concerned with what is important to you and your values. Explore the world to discover what you believe to be important, and you will find your sense of self. Stand your ground and enquire about things that go against your instincts. The difficult times in life will determine your strength of character.”
Now, I am confident that I have found my place in my community and wider society. The values and morals that I found outside of the church have shaped my desired career path. Finding my identity was not through being forced to dress conservatively, or through attempting to please people; but through being implored to form my own perspectives. To this day, I still know of many people who were able to find their sense of identity in the Church. To their credit, I believe many of these people are well-grounded and intentioned in their actions. I recognise that faith and religion is an integral part of these peoples’ lives and that they wish to inspire others to follow a similar path.
In recent years, my parents have an understanding that I have distanced myself from the Church. However, they are yet to know my reflections of my experiences. Regardless, they have greatly embraced the person I am now. They have, and continue, to support me through my endeavours. For that, I owe everything to them.